Avoiding the Complacency Trap After This Hurricane Season

by Mark J. Misczak

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Puerto Rico and Florida faced punishing hurricanes in the 2022 season and are working hard to recover. Still, hurricane season has been relatively quiet for much of the Gulf coast and Atlantic seaboard. Less active hurricane seasons are a blessing when fewer lives are lost or adversely impacted, and less property is damaged or destroyed. Yet they come with a downside risk: complacency.

States and localities whose preparedness was not tested may fall into the trap of assuming everything they had done to prepare would have adequately mitigated a hurricane’s impact and supported an effective response and recovery. That is an understandable reaction to the closing of a hurricane season with few landfalls. It is also a mistake.

Emergency management professionals must push through any complacency, using the next six months to challenge assumptions and make critical improvements before the next season begins. The best opportunities to do that are pre-disaster mitigation and housing with a focus on sharing priorities, enhancing growth and addressing equity.

Sharing Priorities

Hurricanes wreak havoc on the states, counties, cities, and towns in their paths. Because of that shared burden of preparedness, response, and recovery, FEMA requires that these entities – as well as homeowners, businesses, and non-profits – coordinate their requests for hazard mitigation funding. The time to start is now to ensure any proposed hazard mitigation projects are coordinated with their state’s priorities, increasing approval odds when grant applications are submitted.

Emergency management professionals live in the golden age of pre-disaster hazard mitigation funding. More money is available to support projects to mitigate the impact of disasters like hurricanes than at any time in U.S. history. In July 2022, President Biden announced that $2.3 billion would be available for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program in FY2022 – more than twice the level available in 2021. This record level of funding creates new opportunities for state and local governments to undertake impactful hazard mitigation and resilience projects to better protect their residents in future hurricane seasons and even strengthen local economies.

Despite punishing hurricanes in Puerto Rico and Florida, the 2022 season has been relatively quiet. However, now is the time to leverage mitigation resources.

The primary reason for coordination is that FEMA requires that all BRIC grant applications come through the states, and it empowers each state to add its priorities or requirements to those set by FEMA. For the best chance to get grant applications approved, local governments and organizations must understand their state’s priorities and ensure their projects are aligned while meeting FEMA’s criteria.

Each state hazard mitigation officer (SHMO) is responsible for that state’s hazard mitigation plan. Local governments, homeowners, businesses, and nongovernmental organizations can engage with that office to learn about the state’s hazard mitigation priorities, so they can better align their projects. Their objective should be to secure a document that officially recognizes their local mitigation projects consistent with the state’s mitigation priorities. That is a small step that has a significant positive impact on the eligibility of BRIC grant applications.

Another approach to sharing priorities to maximize eligibility for federal mitigation grants is using public-private partnerships. As FEMA notes in its BRIC Program Support Material, it “encourages innovative use of public and private-sector partnerships to meet the non-federal cost share” for BRIC-funded hazard mitigation grants. To further improve grant eligibility, focus on multi-jurisdictional projects. FEMA considers multi-jurisdictional projects more valuable for using federal funds because, without those funds, the projects may never get completed due to cost and complexity.

Enhancing Growth

States and communities that did not suffer a hurricane landfall in 2022 now have additional time that might otherwise have been spent on response and recovery. One way to use this time is to assess more deeply how different mitigation projects can reduce the impact of future hurricanes and enhance their area’s long-term economic growth.

Mitigation projects can have secondary effects that benefit the states. For example, consider a community that wants to apply for FEMA grant funding to build a water retention structure to help address anticipated flood runoff following a hurricane. The primary benefit of that project is to protect businesses or residential areas. But if designed properly, that project can do a lot more to boost the community.

If the water retention structure is designed to meet FEMA’s requirements, the community can ask FEMA to remap its flood risk once the project and its resulting protection is complete. Once the benefits of the water retention structure are factored in, that may open new areas for community investment or development. In short, targeted and ambitious mitigation projects can create new opportunities for sustainable developments and economic conditions for business growth.

Even if communities do not want to use mitigation to unlock development, they can use it to reduce insurance premiums for property owners. FEMA operates a program in more than 1,500 communities across the country known as the Community Rating System (CRS), which “recognizes and encourages community floodplain management practices that exceed the minimum requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).”

Under CRS, communities undertaking eligible efforts to reduce flood risk can earn discounts on local flood insurance premium rates. In the case of the hypothetical water retention structure, using FEMA pre-disaster mitigation funds to diminish the impact of future hurricanes could help prevent future flooding. The result is a more resilient community and lower flood insurance premiums for individuals, households, and businesses.

FEMA mitigation information was shared in Florida after Hurricane Michael (Source: FEMA, May 28, 2020).

Addressing Equity

Working to avoid complacency is a priority in more areas than just mitigation. One of the lessons of the 2022 hurricane season is that states and communities should also consider prioritizing the design of housing programs that address equity for residents in communities impacted by disasters. Florida, facing recovery from two hurricanes this year, is currently designing an example of how it can be done better.

Planning for the complexities of post-disaster sheltering and housing are among the most important but overlooked areas of preparation. In a 2019 article for the American Planning Association, authors Alexandra Miller, AICP, and Jeffrey Goodman wrote:

[I]t’s apparent that several predictable factors can make it harder for some households and communities to recover, and many revolve around equity and access to resources – or lack thereof. One area where equity is often most at risk following a disaster like a hurricane is housing. Planners who understand the core equity issues in their housing markets before disaster hits are uniquely positioned to help design better recovery programs.

Communities at risk for hurricanes need inclusive sheltering and housing plans before a storm hits. FEMA has developed a protocol to support the creation of these types of plans and how to use federal grant money to support them. Unfortunately, far too many states and localities do not invest the time and effort to develop these plans, which leaves them without a voice when a disaster occurs. It is too common for officials to rely solely on FEMA housing programs without understanding the available options, which sheltering and housing programs leave the residual value in their communities, and which options offer only temporary solutions with no residual value. Understanding these choices in the context of the community being served is critical to solving problems quickly and obtaining sustainable results.

In 2022, the state of Florida is utilizing a system it created to help residents pay their home insurance deductibles in the six counties most impacted by Hurricane Ian. Although these residents had insurance, they have low to moderate incomes and may not be able to afford the higher deductibles associated with hurricane repairs. Without state assistance, their recovery and the recovery of the communities they live in could be significantly delayed.

This approach could inspire models for other jurisdictions. Disaster mitigation, response, and recovery plans must account for everyone. Recovery after a disaster is far more difficult for those with fewer resources – especially for housing needs – so these portions of impacted communities have borne the heaviest burden once an emergency happens.

Where residents can live and work in the aftermath of a disaster has an enormous impact on how quickly the whole community can recover. As Miller and Goodman noted, “Slow and inequitable funding shuts down economies and strangles job opportunities, making it difficult for people to cover basic expenses, let alone recover.”  

The period at the immediate conclusion of hurricane season offers planners the maximum time possible to assess their potential housing needs and ensure their plans support all residents before the next hurricane season begins. They should challenge themselves and those around them to develop inclusive plans that meet the challenges of the community(ies) they serve before the next season starts and seek federal funding to help them do it!

The paramount lesson from less active hurricane seasons is that it is essential to avoid complacency. Those reading this article who are not actively managing a response or recovery effort, should put this opportunity to good use. They should develop plans to take advantage of historic levels of federal mitigation funds to strengthen their state and community resiliency and to inclusively plan for the difficulties of post-disaster sheltering and housing. A historic lesson, hard learned in many states and communities, is that next season may not be so quiet. 

Mark J. Misczak, CEM, is senior vice president, chief operating officer at Tidal Basin. He has worked in disaster preparedness, response, and recovery for more than 30 years, most of which was spent serving at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). His work at FEMA included command roles in the largest disasters in our Nation’s history. His former federal titles include: branch chief – FEMA Region VI, deputy FCO, director of the Office of Cerro Grande Fire Claims, and acting director and deputy director for Individual Assistance (At the time of his departure, this was the largest division within the agency). At FEMA, and through his subsequent leadership at emergency management consulting firms, he has led complex programs and projects resulting in the delivery of billions of dollars in federal recovery and resiliency funding.

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